While working at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, I got a chance to taste tea with an expert: Sebastian Beckwith, proprietor of the online merchant In Pursuit of Tea. Beckwith poured fragrant white teas, bright greens, a wide range of oolongs and and rich reds (the more traditional name for black teas, favored by tea people). Toward the end of the session, Beckwith pulled out a disc, about the size and shape of an Ultimate frisbee, and explained that it was a special type of pu’erh, processed in the Menghai factory in Southern China’s Yunnan Province—and that it was grown in the 1980s. At that moment, I officially became a sommelier with a tea habit.
Pu’erh, I decided later, was the Bordeaux of tea. Young, it’s too tannic to drink. But after years—sometimes decades—that roughness falls away to reveal a spectrum of earthy aromas, which is exactly what happens to a good Pauillac after forty years in the cellar. Also, the best examples can be quite expensive, though a few ounces of tea will yield many more cups than will a bottle of wine.
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I now believe that for every wine, there’s a tea that hits similar notes. Here are four more: